Please give an update on how the Indian dams industry has coped throughout 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic.

During December 2019, the COVID-19 virus erupted in Wuhan in China and before we knew it the pandemic had spread all over the world.

On 24 March 2020, Prime Minister Sh Narendra Modi, taking charge of the situation called for a nationwide lockdown for 21 days, limiting movement of the entire 1.3billion population of India, as a preventive measure against the pandemic. This first phase of lockdown ending on 14 April 2020 was further extended till 3 May 2020. Subsequently, limited lockdown as well as movement, guidelines and precautions against spread of the virus are being followed. 

During lockdown essential services like water and electricity were exempt and allowed to function normally by observing all precautions and safeguards against the COVID-19 virus. This presented an unprecedented challenge for the hydropower sector in India.

India ranks third globally with 5334 large dams in operation. In addition, there are several thousand smaller dams. These dams are vital for ensuring water security of the country and these also constitute a major responsibility in terms of asset management and safety. Out of 5334 large dams under operation in India, 28 dams are greater than 100m high. Thonnur Tank dam was constructed in the year 1000 AD and is 1020 years old. This dam located approximately 135km from Bengaluru is known for its clean and pristine water in Karnataka. Cumbhum dam was built in the year 1500 AD on Gundlakamma and Jampaleru rivers in Andhra Pradesh. Some of the other old dams in the country are Dhamapur (1600 AD) in Maharashtra and Barwa Sagar, Magar Pur and Pachwara Lake in Uttar Pradesh, all three constructed in the year 1694 AD. Seven dams are more than 200 years of age,184 dams are between 100-200 years of age and 102 dams are between 75 to 100 years of age.  The average age of dams in India is around 41 years.

Examining the possible long-term implications of COVID-19 on anything is complicated by the fact that COVID-19 in itself has shown how any predictions about future scenarios are uncertain and difficult. 

Another important factor is that there has been large scale migration of population from urban areas to the remote areas due to which significant deficit of manpower has been experienced in dam projects under construction. This has not only delayed the completion schedule of the projects but also possible economic and social benefits, to the skilled and semi-skilled manpower as well as to the national economy, which could have been delivered by the dam projects.

In the case of hydropower projects in India, there is a delay of 8-12 months in the capacity addition of more than 12,000MW projects which could have generated about 40 billion units of electricity and substantially contributed to the growth of national economy and GDP. Public debt level is already beginning to rise steeply and that, in the future, taking on debt to build large dams will need to be planned more carefully than before.

Another challenge which Indian dam professionals faced was organising the ICOLD 2020 Annual Meeting and Symposium from 4-10 April in New Delhi. The ICOLD Board reviewed the COVID-19 pandemic situation continuously and postponed ICOLD 2020 three times once from April to September, the second time from September to November and finally decided to organise an ICOLD International Symposium, from 24th to 27th February, 2021 in New Delhi.  Each postponement of dates has put enormous pressure on the INCOLD organising team and on its resources to work extra and to carry out entire exercise from ab initio. ICOLD in its Annual Meeting held on 30 November has now decided to hold ICOLD 2023 in New Delhi.

How do you feel about the opportunity given to serve as Vice President of ICOLD?

DK Sharma: It is a great honour for me to be part of the ICOLD Board as Vice President for the period 2019-2022. It gives me a great sense of pride, having been provided with immense responsibility by the National Committees of 104 member nations to contribute to the growth, development and relevance of various aspects related to dams. The beauty of ICOLD is that all disciplines related to planning, public interaction, environment, engineering, construction, climate change and rehabilitation of dams etc get integrated under one umbrella to set standards in these fields for building safe dams.

During my professional career, I developed a passion for dams. Discussions with the members of national committees to understand each other and their dams related challenges is another great learning curve for me. Interaction at the Board level to steer such a body of professionals to meet future challenges is unique and I feel honoured to be part of this Board. Knowledge sharing and exchange with our colleagues in ICOLD makes us safer, more confident and efficient in order to build “Better Dams for a Better World”.

I jumped right to work since my election as Vice President. I have been contributing as an active team member in the ICOLD Board. I have contacted all ICOLD member nations and am trying to establish personal relationships with most of the national committees for their active participation in ICOLD activities.

In view of the small number of new dams being constructed, an important task is the safety of ageing dams throughout the world. I have also been making personal efforts to encourage national committees of neighbouring ICOLD member countries in South as well as in South East Asia to take up dam rehabilitation and improvement activities of ageing dams in their countries. I am also trying my best to encourage young professionals to participate in ICOLD activities. 

I wish to work for promoting the construction of new safe dams for providing water and energy security for the growing population across the world. 

Please give an update on current and future dam building across India

Construction of new dams in India has slowed down during the last 10 to 15 years due to population pressure and issues related to rehabilitation and resettlement, and the longer gestation period of hydropower plants and high cost of energy generation compared to solar power. Around 90 new dams have been constructed in India during the last ten years. About 411 new dams are under construction. Most of the dams are constructed for hydropower generation and irrigation.

What important issues are facing the industry at the current time?

DK Sharma: Climate change is a reality now and it might re-shape the future of dam construction. Collective action is needed now to combat it and the biggest risk is the failure of mitigation and adaptation. Reviewing/augmenting capacity of existing spillways to pass floods due to increased extreme events is required. Due to climate change, a review of existing dams’ current operation and maintenance system, and the need to change operational rules and the way we manage our reservoirs, is becoming imperative. 

India has undertaken the world's largest dam rehabilitation and improvement project (DRIP) for its existing dams. The first phase of the project covered 198 dams and will end in March 2021. The second and third phases will cover 687 dams and have a 10-year duration. Phase II & III will each be of six years duration, with two years of overlapping, and will commence from April 2021. 

Any other comments?

I would continue advocating to further the cause of the construction of new dams and to accelerate the rehabilitation and improvement of existing dams.

Pt. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, called multipurpose dams the “Temples of Modern India”. To that end we have seen how instrumental dams have been to provide a base-platform for the economy of a country and for development. We also saw how important it was to dam builders to ensure rehabilitation and resettlement of the masses displaced due to the construction of a dam.

As time changes, we will face new challenges. New dams will play a very important role for adaptation and mitigation of climate change. Confidence building measures, regular interaction and communication with the public at large, through various means is essential for the take up new dams.

I always have been working with the core idea that engineers are builders of a nation and it has always been my guiding force.